Healthcare providers should not ignore the difficulties facing other sectors, writes Noel Plumridge

The queues outside my local branch of Northern Rock have finally subsided. The line wound patiently down the street - mainly older people, seemingly prepared for a long wait in the hope of recovering their savings intact. It's been like a time warp. A run on the bank, we thought, simply doesn't happen nowadays.

Today the queues have gone, and three bored-looking cashiers are waiting for custom that isn't coming. Perhaps all the depositors now have their money back: nationally a cool£3bn, around an eighth of the bank's deposits, has been withdrawn in three days. Perhaps the vaults are empty. Or maybe people are satisfied by the guarantee of all Northern Rock deposits from chancellor Alistair Darling and, indeed, of deposits in any other struggling bank. (There are mutterings about the Alliance & Leicester.)

Meanwhile the market value of Northern Rock shares has fallen like a stone - under£2 instead of last February's£12.58 - and soon, no doubt, a buyout will be announced. Another bank will take over the business, vans of shopfitters will give the premises a makeover and before long the Northern Rock name will be history.

What is the lesson for the health sector? Is Northern Rock a one-off collapse or a symptom of deeper systemic problems? Now that foundation trusts, in particular, are more entwined with the commercial world than ever before, is the NHS insulated from banking failure? Could a foundation trust ever go bung in the same spectacular way?

One lesson is that banks, like other businesses, fail from time to time. There is no such thing as a cast-iron investment. Bank deposits are safer than most, but are not exempt from the classic investment trade-off between risk, yield and liquidity.

Some unfortunate NHS finance directors or trustees of charitable funds may even now be losing sleep, anxious about the fate of their Northern Rock investment fund and wondering whether corporate investors are also covered by Mr Darling's guarantee.

It's not so very long since the finance director of a Scottish local authority that lent its temporary cash surplus to the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (Google BCCI if you don't remember) woke with a sore head and a lot of explaining to do.

A second lesson is one that successful Nairobi taxi drivers learn early in their careers. Have you ever wondered, in an idle moment, where Nairobi taxi drivers keep their money? Everywhere. Some in their wallets; some inside their socks; some in the boot of the car; some in the petrol can; and more in places you would not wish to think about. Why? Because the chances are a robber won't find all the hiding places. It's basic guile.

Here the government scheme protecting savers from bank failure only covered the first£2,000 in a customer's account, plus 90 per cent of the next£33,000. So it's reasonable to assume those in the Northern Rock queues typically had more than that sum to withdraw, or thought£3,300 - that is, the other 10 per cent of the£33,000 - worth a day's queuing. And maybe they then thought twice before taking the whole bag of gold, intact, to the Halifax, Abbey or wherever. Once bitten, twice shy.

Perhaps the gloss of internet banking has also faded a little. Not for nothing did the old banks have big, ostentatious buildings with classical facades and marble pillars: they were visible signals of assets to back up the claims of permanence. Last weekend the Northern Rock website was, for practical purposes, shut. Faith in instant online access evaporated as quickly as the worth of a cut-up credit card.

In business terms, the Northern Rock failure appears akin to the widely publicised collapse of the US 'sub-prime' mortgage market. As in the US, the Northern Rock business model depended heavily on making loans to younger people willing to stretch themselves to huge mortgages. As interest rates have risen, these people have found themselves increasingly unable to meet their payments.

So Northern Rock in turn found itself paying higher and higher interest rates, in a tightening money market, to honour its own debts. When word got out, the dam burst.

Which suggests a systemic problem, but one that may perversely work to the benefit of an NHS that increasingly looks to the banking system to finance capital investment.

Banks, like individual investors, seek the optimum balance of risk and yield, and have been cautious for some time about the absence of a transparent insolvency regime for foundation trusts. What the banks would really like is for government to underwrite foundation trusts, in the same way that NHS trusts are underwritten.

But banks also need profits, and maybe the health service does not look such a bad investment after all. For the NHS, the key lesson from this sorry episode lies in the government's willingness to intervene directly to protect the credibility of the financial sector.

The Bank of England was keen not to bail out financial institutions that were failing as a result of their own unwise decisions. The occasional bankruptcy was deemed acceptable. But the government wasn't willing to handle the resulting public disquiet.

From time to time the question of Bradford Teaching Hospitals foundation trust (which suffered intervention by the regulator when it ran up an£11m deficit) is raised. What if market forces mean a hospital actually runs out of money? What if a foundation trust was unable to settle its bills and salaries? Would the government actually allow a failing hospital to go to the wall?

The Northern Rock episode gives a steer to the true answer: intervention certainly, regime change probably, but stability at all costs. The sign outside the front gate might change, but clinical care would continue. As with Alistair Darling's guarantee to Northern Rock investors, there's comfort in that.